Food Matters: Aspen’s service industry figures reflect on a rich winter season
Ascend Ajax this Saturday, March 30: “the umpteenth annual” Bonnie’s Bash hosted by Sarah the Pilot occupies the deck, featuring tunes by DJ Mayfly, possible door prizes, burgers and keg beer beginning at 1 p.m. Wear Hawaiian flair, and arrive early for a complimentary lei, available while supplies last. (While Bonnie’s officially closes April 7, it reopens with a limited menu during the Synchro Ski Championships on April 11 to 14.)
Early one morning not long ago, a United Airlines customer service agent whisked into the break room at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and flung open a community fridge.
“Do we have any eggs in here?” she asked aloud, to a gaggle of ramp workers struggling to warm up and dry out after an hour of shoveling slush so heavy it felt like wet cement. This wasn’t a random question; one fellow employee is a farmer who deposits stacks of cartons weekly for paying colleagues.
It was sometime around 6 a.m., and the airport restaurant, Jedediah’s, had run out of the breakfast staple. Its daily delivery was delayed due to a raging storm, possibly the same one that sent a massive avalanche cascading across I-70 at Ten Mile Canyon. The airport would end up canceling nearly all pending flights, drawing a zoo of frustrated travelers until dusk.
“Oh, yeah! The truck normally shows up at 4:30; it didn’t show up until 9 or 10 a.m.,” says cashier Hector Alba weeks later, when I ask about that fateful morning. “We had to run across (Highway 82) to Roxy’s for eggs and all kinds of stuff. It’s been crazy, all these delays and people, too busy!”
We’re chatting by the soda fountain on Saturday at 5:45 a.m., during a rare quiet moment before the onslaught. Coffee is brewing, and hash browns sizzle on the grill. When I return just 20 minutes later, customers are lined up seven deep, and the formerly deserted dining room is half-full of diners seated at tables and chairs.
Jedediah’s sole line cook on duty glides between the stovetop and prep counter, draining bacon grease and wrapping breakfast burritos. I can tell by the way he hustles that I should probably grab a Snickers—it’s gonna be awhile before he’ll be free to talk. Outside, snow swirls relentlessly.
“It will be like this all the way until 10; then there’s about a one-hour break to prepare for lunch,” says Alba, who also tends the joint’s five-seat bar. “Then 11 (a.m) all the way to 2 p.m. is busy. Weekends are busier. If there are delays, it gets really busy. I’m waiting for vacation: Puerto Vallarta for a month and a half. I went there last Wednesday—no, Thursday. There was a storm, so I couldn’t get out of Denver.”
While epic snowfall spells bliss on mountain for skiers and snowboarders, the service industry folk who cater to them are maxed out.
“It’s been a wild winter, we’re all wiped out. And for some reason it’s always storming on my shifts,” says Jim “Rosebud” Rose, of Bonnie’s Haulers, the snowcat grocery delivery and trash removal operation that services the homey restaurant on Aspen Mountain. Though Rosebud yearns for solid sleep, he does appreciate the cool conditions. Not that he has much energy left after strenuous shifts running supplies up and trash down the mountain, with frequent vehicle breakdowns and consistent “can’t see s—” visibility.
“I think people have been in a bad mood because it’s such a rough year,” he continues. “It’s a lot of work. I have a great picture of the boys shoveling like 10 feet of snow off the roof at Bonnie’s. (See photo, opposite.) The skiing’s good, though.
“It’s been more crowded—hard to say if it’s because of the Ikon Pass, but there are definitely more people from out of town. You can tell by the way they ski! Some locals have this attitude that nobody’s supposed to be here, that they should have the mountain to themselves…but…this is a business.”
Meanwhile, back at the base, Shlomo’s bar manager Mark Taylor takes a brief break from mixing margaritas on the patio. Under a tent, DJ Kevin Joyal is dropping delicious ear candy to a swelling crowd. Sunday Funday full send: imminent.
“I wouldn’t say ‘over it,’ but fatigued,” offers Taylor, a South Africa native, comparing his sophomore season in town to last year’s lame snow show. “I’ve never seen so much snow in my life! Doesn’t matter what career you’re in, it’s been a long winter, especially for restaurants. (But) it’s the Aspen lifestyle: If you’re not partying you’re skiing. If you’re not skiing, you’re working. It’s a continuous cycle.”
No doubt, Shlomo’s patio is an afternoon hot spot.
“One of our biggest après was during a blizzard,” says Taylor, who credits Shlomo’s efficiency to a new crew and recent business model revamp. “Our prices are very competitive. The locals are supporting us, and we want to support the locals. We run out of everything every weekend, which is a good problem.”
Aspen’s steady stream of powderhound visitors dig it, too. “Our craziest moment: A group of guys from New York—about 60 to 80 of them—bought every bottle of Champagne we had,” Taylor continues. “Imagine 15 girls on top of the bar, and three or four guys handing out bottles, shooting corks at each other. Trying to work with Champagne in your eyes … it’s awesome.”
Tommy Tollesson knows the feeling, as general manager of Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro on Aspen Highlands for many a wine-soaked winter.
“It’s been our strongest season but challenging because in March we haven’t had a lot of weekends with patio days,” Tollesson says. “As much as we all love the snow, it’s been tough on our deck. That’s 100-plus seats. People will still sit out there in a blizzard, but we sell more seafood towers when it’s nice (weather).”
Naturally, the cozy on-mountain cabin has been packed nonstop. “It’s quite possible we’ve done fewer people, but that they’ve been spending more money,” Tollesson adds. “Yes.”
Morale is high and staff issues are scant at C9 this season. “Everyone is grateful, after last year, that we actually have had a snowy winter,” Tollesson explains. “It’s been the best season I’ve experienced, us working as a team. Part of the benefit is a ski pass, so when you have a day off, it’s a good day!”
As the indisputable Aspen legend known as the 2018-19 Winter Season wanes, service industry workers look forward to closing it down. Rosebud plans to buzz up to Utah and Wyoming on a soul-refreshing road trip. Tollesson will jet “wherever my wine project—Entourage—takes me: Hamptons, Nantucket, L.A., South of France.”
Similarly, Taylor will seek seashore. After so much cold, he quips, “I need some beach and sun in my life!”
Amanda Rae is stoked for spring shredding, yet ready to fly away! Send travel intel to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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